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Sherpas On Assignment

Sherpas On Assignment

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Where Sherpas Roam

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By T. R. ReidPhotographs by Robb Kendrick

It's their mountain, and ever since tourists started pouring in, it's their livelihood too.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

I began to understand the implications of the Sherpa dispersion when I trekked through a forest of birch and rhododendron at 11,400 feet (3,450 meters) to the quiet village of Thamo, a collection of four dozen rectangular homes perched like colorful Lego blocks on a steep slope about a 90-minute walk from Namche. It's hard to imagine a more dramatic place to live. Just to the east looms the majestic white pyramid of 18,901-foot (5,761-meter) Khumbila, to my eyes, the most beautiful peak in the whole Everest region—and one most sacred to Sherpas. Across a gorge to the west, a half dozen hundred-foot-high (30-meter-high) waterfalls crash down the cliff face to the rumbling Bhote Kosi river.

On a chilly, misty day in mid-September, nearly all the residents of Thamo are out in their fields harvesting the potato crop, pulling a year's sustenance from the soil. In a potato field down by the river I meet Pasang Namgyal Sherpa, a tiny figure with a latte brown face and wispy white hair that sticks out here and there from his red knit cap. Pasang, 74, introduces me to his wife, Da Lhamu, 73. The couple invite me in for Sherpa tea, an astringent brew made in a wooden churn with salt and melted yak butter. It's an acquired taste that I will never acquire, even though Da Lhamu hovers around me all afternoon with the teapot, repeating an insistent Sherpa phrase that obviously means "Drink up! Drink up!"

Their home is a classic Sherpa farmhouse. We step over a high wooden threshold into a gloomy first floor full of sacks and baskets holding potatoes, turnips, cornmeal, and a stack of drying yak dung, to be used as cooking fuel. Up a wooden staircase—so steep it is really a ladder—we come to a single long room, with benches around the walls for sitting or sleeping, and an open hearth in one corner that provides what little heat and light the house has to offer. There are two small lightbulbs in the ceiling, powered by a hydroelectric plant the Austrian government finished in 1995 as a foreign aid project a few miles upstream. But Pasang tells me he only uses them at night, which keeps the electricity bill down to about two dollars a month. The house has no clock, but it does have a calendar, nailed to a beam, indicating when the new moon and the full moon will come. On those two days each month, Pasang forgoes farmwork and stays in to read and chant scripture.

Pasang and Da Lhamu have about 12 teeth left between them, but their smiles gleam as they tell me their life stories—born in Khumbu, married in Khumbu, farmed in Khumbu—and proudly list their possessions. They have several terraced fields, totaling about four acres, plus three cows and three zopkios, a male yak-cow crossbreed. "I had 11 sheep too," Pasang says, "but I had to sell them because I'm getting too old to keep the dogs away from them."

"Well, if you're getting old," I ask, "who's going to take over this farm?" With that the cheery smiles disappear. The couple's son, it turns out, had taken
a job on a climbing team and died in an avalanche in the autumn of 2001. An exact number of how many Sherpa climbers have died on mountaineering expeditions is hard to come by, but by one estimate, 84 died from 1950 through mid-1989. Of the 175 climbers who have died on Everest, a third have been Sherpas. Most Sherpas probably have lost a friend or relative to a mountaineering accident. A few high-altitude porters stop climbing after a friend's death. But most see it as an inevitable hazard and go on, motivated by the money the job brings in.

Pasang and Da Lhamu's only surviving child is their daughter, Phuti. She married a fine man and had two beautiful children, Da Lhamu says, digging out the family photos. "But she's gone to Kathmandu. We won't see her back here."

* * * * * *

Amid the dusty bedlam of Kathmandu's heavily Buddhist Boudhanath neighborhood, where a cacophony of motorcycle engines, truck horns, rooster calls, police whistles, fruit hawkers, and chanting sidewalk monks fills the kerosene-laced air, I look up Pasang and Da Lhamu's 32-year-old daughter, Phuti, and her family in a four-room flat atop a row of small food stalls. The apartment house next door is about 24 inches (60 centimeters) from their window. There are  probably more people living within 50 yards (40 meters) of their home than in the entire village of Thamo.

Phuti and her husband, Nuru Nawang, a Sherpa from Solu, serve me a cup of sweet milk tea and show me their place. They have a television set, a refrigerator and stove, a telephone (equipped with caller ID), an indoor toilet, and tile floors. The house has two clocks and the same calendar I had seen on the wooden beam in Thamo. Nuru, who studied to be a monk, says he would like to devote the days of the new and full moon to scripture readings, but his job as a trekking guide often makes that impossible.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Sights & Sounds

Experience the world that enchanted Sir Edmund Hillary. The ever-friendly Sherpas and the sweeping vistas of Mount Everest await you.

How To Help

Learn more about the American Himalayan Foundation and its work among the Sherpas.


VIDEO Photographer Robb Kendrick talks about how Sherpa culture has changed in the past decade.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer  WinMedia


VIDEO Conservationist Mingma Sherpa discusses what the relationship between Sir Edmund Hillary and the Sherpas has meant for the Everest region.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer  WinMedia


Sherpas have parlayed their climbing successes on Mount Everest into a thriving high-altitude business. But newfound prosperity is bringing unprecedented change to their lives. How can traditional societies that quickly become tourist hubs balance their way of life with the lure of progress? Voice your opinion.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
In many cultures people share common names, but Sherpas have exceptionally similar names. That's because many are named after the day of the week on which they are born. So if you're a Sherpa born on a Sunday you might be called Nima, while Monday would be Dawa, Tuesday Mingma, Wednesday Lhakpa, Thursday Phurba, Friday Pasang, and Saturday Pemba.

The name of the first female Sherpa to summit Mount Everest, Pasang Lhamu, translates as Friday goddess, since Pasang's weekday name means Friday, and Lhamu breaks down to Lha, or god, and mu, the female ending.

—Christy Ullrich and Abby Tipton

Did You Know?

Related Links
The Sherpas
This site contains a wealth of information on Sherpa history, religion, and culture as well as links to articles and organizations of interest to those studying Sherpa society.

Nepal News
Want to keep track of recent developments in the peace negotiations between the Nepalese government and the Maoist rebels? This online news service posts the latest news from Nepal.

Tengboche Monastery
Learn about the Sherpas' religious life through information posted on this site by the Tengboche Monastery Development Project.

Read a first-person account of a 16-day trek through Nepal.


James K. Fisher. Sherpas: Reflections on Change in Himalayan Nepal. University of California Press, 1990.

Harding, Luke. "At the Top of the World," The Observer, May 12, 2002.

Keiser, Anne, and Cynthia Russ Ramsey. Sir Edmund Hillary & The People of Everest. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2002.

Linter, Bertil. "Nepal's Maoists Prepare for Final Offensive," Asia Pacific Media Service, October 2002.

Ortner, Sherry B. Life and Death on Mt. Everest. Princeton University Press, 1999.

Ortner, Sherry B. Sherpas Through Their Rituals. Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Stevens, Stanley F. Claiming the High Ground. University of California Press, 1993.


NGS Resources
St. Jacques, Jacqueline. "School Days on Mt. Everest," National Geographic Explorer! (March 2003), 4-8.

"Everest 1963: How We Climbed Everest," (2000),

Carrier, Jim. "Gatekeepers of the Himalaya," National Geographic (December 1992), 70-89.

Payne, Melvin M. "American and Geographic Flags Top Everest," National Geographic (August 1963), 157.

Hillary, Sir Edmund. "We Build a School for Sherpa Children," National Geographic (October 1962), 548-551.


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